Box 20: Robin Hobb’s Fool’s Assassin

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It feels appropriate that my return to writing about writing is also a return to a long familiar and beloved series. We’re diving into Fool’s Assassin by Robin Hobb today — the third of her trilogies about FitzChivalry Farseer.

As always. There will be spoilers — all the spoilers. Possibly for previous trilogies too. If you aren’t caught up on the various Six Duchies trilogies, well… then you have work to do. Get out of here and read some Robin Hobb.

So…

Fool’s Assassin takes place mostly at Withywoods, a charming country estate in the Six Duchies, and now the home of Molly and Fitz in their retirement. The events of the book center around their unexpected child Bee — she is even given alternating POVs with Fitz through most of the book.

This is not a plot driven book. It’s about Bee growing and Fitz handling aging in his own way. It’s about losing people and trying to get used to new people. It’s about expectations and living. Because of that, I’m not going to spend much time recapping here.

Let’s jump into some writing lessons from Fool’s Assassin.

Throughout the Six Duchies books, the background characters are fairly evenly split between men and women. There are male and female assassins, healers, soldiers, magic users, musicians, merchants, and on, and on. It’s done with very little comment.

That’s it really. There are plenty of times where men and women in this book have Western gender-normative roles, in the foreground and in the background. But by having lots of main cast, secondary cast and “extra” female characters who fill various normative and non-normative roles, it alleviates the pressure on the female characters to be entirely representative of the gender.

Lesson #1 : Gender Balance for Extras

Diversity in storytelling isn’t all about creating diverse protagonists. We need diverse backgrounds too. We need women in the room when it’s not a brothel or a group of wives.  Even if the culture you are building is patriarchal, keep in mind that women are still ‘around’ so to speak. It sounds self-evident, but it’s unrealistic when the extras’ demographics are monolithic.

As I mentioned, this book switches between Fitz’s POV, our dear former assassin, and his daughter. Bee is nine years old for most of the book, and she’s an ‘odd’ child. She has a much longer gestation period, she’s born with a high level of consciousness, has prophetic dreams, is able to read and write and draw at a young age. If you’ve read the series, you’ll pick up quickly on what she is, even if poor Fitz hasn’t caught up yet.

Writing children isn’t easy. Writing non-humans or extraordinary humans isn’t easy. Bee’s POV walks the lines of both carefully and with grace. She’s a child, but not exactly an ordinary one. Seeing her through her own eyes and the eyes of her father gives you empathy for the character, and at the same time lets you understand the ‘creepy child’ response she gets from some adults in her life.

Like Fitz, I wasn’t sure what to make of Bee at the beginning, and she grew on me.

Lesson #2: Being Bee

The tight first person of Fitz’s trilogies is consistently a masterclass in perspective. Bee’s perspective is like getting a whole new set of invaluable lectures on the subject. She’s sometimes selfish and naive, frustrated when her own self-evident truths are misunderstood, and both eminently human and quietly alien. 

For as brutal as these books are, a surprising number of characters have made it through six books and into Fool’s Assassin. Aging a character, letting them change and yet be the same, is something that we get multiple examples of in Fool’s Assassin.

Molly has been around peripherally for six books, and by now is an aging woman. Chade, an assassin who was old to begin with,  is now a medical miracle. Kettriken, once princess of a foreign kingdom, then queen of the Six Duchies, and now a dowager queen, has different priorities. Her son, King Dutiful, is a father in his own right.

Lesson #3: Aging Well 

It would be easy to let any of these characters stand still — to not check up on them, to leave the younger generations out and focus exclusively on the happenings and aging of the protagonist. And Hobb doesn’t. They’ve all grown up, grown older, and grown different.

First person. I mentioned the fabulous first person, but we’re going back to it in order to talk about misunderstandings.

This is everything from Fitz’s surprise that Chade is happy when Fitz reaches out telepathically, to his disappointment in Chade’s inability to offer consolation to Fitz on Molly’s death. There’s such nuance to the way Fitz sees Bee and Bee sees Fitz. There are tons of different details in here to look for.

Lesson #4: Misunderstandings between Characters

Human interactions are fraught with misinterpretations, with tiny differences of opinion and memory. Communication is imperfect, even between old friends. Hobb pays attention to her character relationships, and gives rough and irregular edges to their ability to relate, communicate and understand.

That’s four, and normally I’d stop there. But I have a few more thoughts. So…

SUPER SPOILER BONUS ROUNDS

Like really. I’m going to spoil the end of a few books in a moment. Get out of here if you haven’t read Farseer, Tawny Man et all.

So.

Grim dark fantasy is in vogue,  I feel like I’ve seen a lot of people using the brutality of a secondary world to make it ‘realistic’. One problem with relying on that sort of thing, especially in an ongoing series, is the pressure to alway go bigger — to find things worse than death, to make the deaths more horrific, etc..

In the second book of the first trilogy, Fitz dies. Our first person POV is executed. Bloody brutal.

And yet, Hobb consistently succeeds in coming up with worse corners for Fitz to fight his way out of — without yet going back to killing him.

Fool’s Assassin is mostly small events both happy and sad — but I read the book waiting for the other shoe to drop — to really get punched in the gut by more than the melancholy of aging and watching the world change. Knowing it was coming didn’t make it better. There’s a body count at the end, a painful and effective body count, but that isn’t the main impact.

Ending the book with Bee in the hands of fanatical torturers, just after seeing what said torturers did to the beloved Fool, is crushing. Can’t wait to see how she breaks my heart in the next book.

Lesson #5: Upping the Ante

There are things so much worse than death. I like a good grimdark story as much as the next person. Possibly more than the next person. But murdering characters for shock value does not a narrative make. Don’t get twisted into thinking that death, torture, maiming, loss and illness can’t be effective in degrees. You don’t have to go all the way to be effective. 

Finishing this post I keep thinking of other things to talk about: Fitz saving the dog near the end and how satisfying it is to have him be a righteous badass after so much slow burn patience in the book. Or how painfully unfinished the lives of Revel and others feel when they are murdered.

Man, I missed this.

What did ya’ll think of Fool’s Assassin? Learn anything fun for your writing?

Game Box 03: Tales of the Arabian Nights

The excellent Clarice Monet reading out the fabulous tales of our adventure.
The excellent Clarice Monet reading out the fabulous tales of our adventure.

Tales of the Arabian Nights is a gorgeous storytelling game. You move around a lovely board, collecting points and wealth and treasure, but mostly continuing your story. The story pours out of a massive book of tiny encounters, snippets of narrative and the occasional grand adventure – the biggest, choose your own adventure you could ask for.

The Pitch: Be a hero in your own legend — growing from a poor but deserving (or thieving) commoner into a world adventurer. There are a lot of games that try to play on that feeling, but this… does it. If you ever wanted your own fairytale — a proper one, with ups and downs — then you need to be playing this game.

Notes on Playing:

  • Winning is cool, but it’s not the point of this game. The point is a good story. I once spent the majority of a game imprisoned by a crazy sultan with hounds for advisors and his equally mad jailer. I got nothing done. And it was great. It does’t always work out that way, but with surprising frequency, frustrated goals make a fabulous game. You can also just play for the hell of the story, without adhering to the win condition.
  • I said this was a fairytale. It is — told from a non-Western point of view. The map centers on the Arabian Peninsula. That’s where the world is the safest, the map most accurate and detailed. This is so refreshingly full of flavor from the tales the game is named after. There are djinn and efrit and ghooli and piety refers to reverence for Allah – the world is there and waiting for you to step into it.
  • The storybook is massive — which is great because you have a hard time getting back to adventures you’ve already done. But it’s spiral bound. I have to stop myself from wincing every time someone is even a little careless flipping it open. That might just be me, but it’s such a lovely game that the thought of accidentally tearing one of the pages is so sad-making…
  • When you start the game, your character has a gender — but it actually functions like a sexual orientation. A few adventures rely on who your character is attracted to. My gaming group adds an extra setup step:  we declare our character’s orientation — so far we’ve stuck to being gay or straight. I think you could easily play as asexual or bisexual without batting an eyelash.

Who Should Play?

Anyone? Everyone? Okay, so it takes a while to play it. You start fairly ‘low level’, and the adventures scale as the game goes on. You need to block out a couple hours for this one. It’s also reading heavy, so it’s not great for young kids — who might be into the story, but not into reading out loud.

That aside, it’s a fairly accessible game — low barrier of entry for non-gamers and easy to explain once you get going.

Just… go play? Please. It’s so pretty. It’s such a story. You’ll love it.

If by some twisted chance, you are here reading this and haven’t watched SU&SD’s review, then go do that now. Hell, I might go rewatch it after writing this. Since it’s getting too late to play the game.

Project Box 02: The Amiable Critique

So I joined Gumroad‘s Small Product Lab on a lark. It sounded like a cool challenge: make and launch a product in 10 days.

Of course, I didn’t notice that most of those 10 days I would be on vacation and at GenCon and driving. So when I got the email telling me to get ready for the lab I freaked out a little.

I was able to keep up with the assignments and participation for the first couple days, and then I got caught up in traveling and family and convention stuff. I got home with three days to do most of the work on my project.

And, well. I like sprints, so I went for launch anyway. And here it is:

The Amiable Critique

It’s ten thoughts about running critiques in a writers group. I’m pretty proud of it. I have an awesome supportive writer’s group, and I want nice things for other people’s writing groups. I hope it’s useful.

I’m going to throw out the first couple pages here so you get a feel for what it’s about.

Here are some thoughts about the process and making it:

1) Tied to the idea of a product is selling it. I set the price at pay what you want, because this is something I want to share, and because I don’t think I do enough to get my stuff out there. If you can donate the price of a cup of coffee, great. But please take it, and make good writing groups!

2) Related… >.> I’m terrible at marketing. I can sprint through making a product, but sharing it… I really suck at this. I look at it, I feel like it’s a good and useful thing, but I don’t know what to say to whom and where to get it out there. That’s something to work on…

3) I really love working with writers to improve their craft. I’m thinking about how to do more of that. If you’re interested in something like a subscription based writing critique group, comment, say hi, whatever.

This was fun. I learned a bit about myself and my philosophy of writing and critiquing — so all around win.

Movie Box 01: Ant-Man

antmanposterSaw Ant-Man last night. Here are some loosely organized thoughts.

The Short Version:

More solid Marvel fun. The great cast saves the moments that touch on cliche, and the absurdism creates fabulous moments. If you’re enjoying the MCU films, it’s another well done entry to their canon. If you’re looking for ground breaking cinema and massively creative storytelling, then this probably wasn’t on your ‘to watch’ list anyway.

The Long Version (with Spoilers):

The Good

I loved dark and brooding Evangeline Lilly as Hope van Dyne. It was fun to see a straight up angry woman who never turned the corner into annoying by becoming bitchy or incompetent. Huzzah for Hope!

Yet again, we got a slightly different brand of humor for this superhero in the MCU. It’s got a little bit of the Guardians of Galaxy sensibility, grounded on earth by a ‘grown-up-ness’ and with a hint of the Iron Man wit. We get moments of tension awkwardly crushed and ridiculous toy-sized battles, but an essential part of the story is Scott Lang trying to be a good father, which necessitates some growing up. Laughing with the kids, as opposed to being a kid.

I was looking forward to Corey Stoll chewing some scenery as the villainous Dr. Cross, and he was great. He handles moments that could have come off much more cliche with  sang froid or surprised hurt that saves them. Specifically, the first man he shrinks to a sad blip of pulp and then cleans up — it’s a huge overreaction, but performed with clean, calm insanity. Great.

Also, Dr. Cross had enough development to make sense without us being hammered on the nose with how and why he’s evil. I think his reaction saved the lamb murder from being a cliched villain establishment trope. Plus, I was actually surprised.

Some nuance for side characters! Yay! Mostly I’m talking about the step-family situation. This is an issue near and dear to my heart, and it was awesome to see a healthy father/step-father relationship come out of the story. It was also nice to see Scott trying to have a relationship with his daughter that did not include going after her mother. Too often we get vilified step-parents, and the lost partner reduced to a prize to be won. And cheers for Cassie’s pet ant.

Paul Rudd was fun to watch and the character was smart and human, confident without being a jackass and appropriately freaked out by the ’superhero’ world without taking too long to deal with it.

Coming off of Avengers: Age of Ultron, a movie that was about 50% set up for future films, Ant-Man switched the focus back to one hero. That said, the judicious use of cameos and hints at world building and MCU integration were well deployed. “I fought an Avenger and didn’t die!” is one of my favorite lines, and the choreography for the Falcon/Ant-Man fight topped a bunch of the other fight work. Using Hank Pym’s past as a way to avoid calling in the Avengers did double duty as a plot point and Pym character work. Plus, it’s always good to see Peggy Carter in charge.

Finally, we’ve seen several Marvel heroes with their own teams: Thor’s got his warriors three and Sif, Cap had the Howling Commandos, etc… but as much as they have specialized skills, they’re all fighting teams. Having a heist team back up the super hero was nice. And I kinda loved them for their generally high competence and goofiness — especially Michael Pena. I hope we get more of him.

The Bad

Pacing. We start out by being told that we only have a few days to steal the Yellow Jacket, and then the training sequence goes on forever — without much sense of how many days it takes. I would need to watch it again to pinpoint more specific thoughts on this, but for me the story starts at one tension level, and I don’t think it ever really wavers from that level.

I said above that I liked Hope a lot, but her story gets pretty truncated and she is basically told to ‘sit down’ for most of the movie. Her reconciliation with her father is too quick, and taking that character to teary instead of pissed annoyed me. I think she and Scott are a fun romantic duo, but would have been perfectly happy if they’d dropped the occasional flirty moments and just left them making out at the end. Especially the ‘I guess I don’t totally hate you’, look at you sideways beat we got from Hope the night before the big ‘heist’. Sigh.

And yes, the post credit sequence gave us the line that epitomized what I was thinking the whole movie. “About damn time,” indeed. It’s nice to have the postscript, but come on. Give her more than a damn postscript. Please?

Lastly, there was a lot of technical handwaving and hanging giant red signs on the techno points that were going to be plot-important.

Maybe the best pieces of Age of Ultron were the set up of Thor’s hammer, Mjolnir, and the reveal of the Vision lifting it. There was no such delicacy here. The regulator was going to be a THING. As opposed to Dr. Cross’s incredibly dangerous turn-you-into-a-drop-of-red-goo gun, which was just a stepping stone to shrinking people and lamb murder. If, instead of his superficial shoulder wound, Hank Pym had been brutally vaporized… oh man… But no.

The Ugly

It’s super normative. Very traditional hero’s journey. He’s special, he trains, he has some mini-missions and then succeeds at the great task, before returning to a normal world that is now better than it was at the beginning of the story.

All of the most important characters: hero, mentor, villain and female lead are all straight and white. Again.

None of that is intrinsically bad, but in a cultural context (i. e. the Real World) it reinforces what a hero is and looks like. Again. I’m so painfully sick of it. The looming dominance of this sort of story tells the lie that it is The Story — which is something people have written and spoke about more eloquently than I’m going to get into now.

That’s it. All the things. I had fun watching the movie. What did you think?

 

Random Box 01: Silicon Valley and Cinderella

sort of…

My sister and I binged the first season of Silicon Valley over 4th of July weekend. I’m a fan, even if Erlich drives me nuts.

Last night I had a dream that Jared (the one who knows what a business plan looks like) was actually an evil mastermind who took over Pied Piper from the inside once they were funded. Maybe not great storytelling, but it was pretty entertaining. Dreams are weird.

What my subconscious did with Silicon Valley is something I do for kicks with friends —  armchair revisions of tv or movies. How would you fix that one episode? Or, if they just didn’t tack five endings on… etc… etc…

Now theoretically,  outside of our modern era of global media and mass distribution, my revisions could be heard/consumed with as much authority as my voice could lend them. But because I’ll never get to remake Silicon Valley, Jared will never take over the world outside of my subconscious. Not that I really want him to.

But this is something I think about a lot — the definitive power of ‘permanent’ stories. What does it mean that one version of a story is definitive? How does that effect our culture? And what are the virtues of the mediums that don’t create static stories?

Obviously live theater is where it’s easy to see mutable stories. Different people in different costumes bring different interpretations and allow a certain life that something like a film is denied. It’s something I love about the traditional ballets  — I’ve seen Swan Lake with a bunch of different endings. But of course, when you start doing film versions of stage shows, the film gets a permanence (and from that permanence authority), denied to live theater.

Hence mixed feelings for the forthcoming version of Macbeth. (Okay, I’m mostly excited, but…)

Inevitably, this is tied to representation. One of the reasons it’s important to see diverse representation in popular culture is that we only get so many definitive versions of stories right now — a couple popular movies, a tv show — overpowering thousands of versions retold to small audiences. If you are an American talking about Cinderella — you’re probably going to think of the new Disney or old Disney versions. Maybe something like Ella Enchanted or Cinder or Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister will come to mind. Imagine the world if this were the definitive version of Cinderella (by Lauren K. Moody — it’s short, go read it), the Disney version so to speak.

It’s a different world.

Anyway. Penny for your thoughts?